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Dessay Gets Lost in Allemonde

available at Amazon
Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande, N. Dessay, S. Degout, L. Naouri, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester
Wien, B. de Billy

(released on January 12, 2010)
Virgin Classics 50999 696 1379 1
2h 43min

Online scores:
Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande
Learning the role of Mélisande was not easy for French soprano Natalie Dessay, apparently like many new roles. Fortunately, she had a devoted friend, conductor Stéphane Denève, who believed that it was a good role for her and taught it to her note by note over the course of one summer. Denève was rewarded for his efforts when Dessay first sang the role in public under his baton, for a bafflingly under-attended concert performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Dessay recently appeared in a staged version of this most enigmatic of operas, at the Theater an der Wien, recorded for this new DVD in January 2009. Only Dessay and her husband, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Golaud, remained together in the Vienna cast -- one suspects that they were a package deal. Watching it has confirmed my suspicion that Dessay is just about perfect for the role, which should not have posed any vocal challenges, except perhaps for some of the lower-set passages. Even so, so much of the opera is ephemeral and, well, soundless, that Dessay's fluttering, bird-like vocal presence works extremely well.

available at Amazon
Gillian Opstad, Debussy's Mélisande: The Lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden, and Maggie Teyte (Boydell Press, 2009)
Dessay began her artistic life as a dancer and then an actress, and movement and characterization have been just as important in her success on the stage as her singing. The role of Mélisande offers some of the same challenges as the many mad scenes at which Dessay has so excelled: a beautiful, enigmatic, at times almost voiceless girl ("Ne me touchez pas! Ne me touchez pas!") who is discovered after surviving some unknown but terrible torment. (One theory hinted at by Maurice Maeterlinck, whose Symbolist play was the literary source for Debussy's opera, is that Mélisande was the only one of Bluebeard's wives to have escaped entombment in his closet.) Dessay is a wide-eyed Mélisande, innocent and yet not ("une grande innocence," as Golaud puts it ironically), like the wounded quarry to which she is compared in the opening scene, seemingly incapable of stopping the implacable series of events that leads to her destruction. (See Gillian Opstad's fascinating book Debussy's Mélisande for more information on the lives of three of the character's first creators.)

Naouri is an eerily calm Golaud, deeply troubled but disturbingly placid on the surface, with an almost character-less, metallic tone to the voice. French baritone Stéphane Degout does well as Pelléas (the role is sung either by a tenor or a high baritone), although surpassed by contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Geneviève (mother of Golaud and Pelléas, by different fathers), whose tight-bunned, high-necked severity recalls both Kathy Bates in Misery and Mrs. Bates in Psycho. Phillip Ens is a resonant, somewhat distracted Arkel, who wanders about the stage like a patient in a nursing home. The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, shown many times in a full view of the open orchestra pit, plays the score extremely well. That is much to the credit of conductor Bertrand de Billy, who brings out the Wagnerian qualities of the score, analyzed in great detail by Robin Holloway.

Mary Garden as Mélisande
Mary Garden as Mélisande
Allemonde, the mythical kingdom where Mélisande finds herself, often seems like Maeterlinck's native Belgium, quiet and gloomy, on a dark and sometimes menacing ocean. The son of a wealthy family in Ghent, he spent much of his time at his family's villa near the Terneuzen canal (not on the ocean), which his mistress Georgette Leblanc found oppressively quiet. Other productions have tried to capture the dour menace of Allemonde with reference to other locales: a bunker full of dying patients in the Marco Arturo Marelli production in Berlin, an insane asylum in the production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito for the Hanover State Opera, and that place where all Robert Wilson productions happen in the Robert Wilson production in Paris.

For this new staging, Laurent Pelly seems to have placed the action in a stuffy, conservative mansion of dark wood panels (sets by Chantal Thomas), perhaps evoking Maeterlinck's home, with everyone dressed in drab browns and grays (costumes by Pelly), and little surviving of the oppressive forests except a few denuded vines and the shadow of dead branches (lighting by Joël Adam). The sets move in and out of view on a rotating part of the stage, with the characters walking through them and often reflecting or reacting between scenes, an excellent way to make the gorgeous interludes, added by Debussy late in the score's development to accommodate lengthy set changes at the Opéra-Comique's Salle Favart, be a part of the dramatic whole. Since the opera has been staged only once by Washington National Opera, in the company's adventurous first decade (1959-60), it is high time to bring it back for a twice-in-a-century appearance. For a somewhat different experience of the opera, you can also try the upcoming performances of the opera, in English and using the musical distillation by Marius Constant, by Opera Vivente in Baltimore (February 26 to March 6).

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